Ever since William the Conqueror invaded England in the 11th Century, Anglo-French ties have been choppy. But Brexit is a reminder that bad blood might still course through the veins of these two historic enemies.
The perfect example? President Emmanuel Macron’s gift to Theresa May when they meet Thursday against a backdrop of sometimes bad-tempered talks with the European Union over Britain’s departure.
Macron will loan a 950-year-old artifact depicting William’s victory in the Battle of Hastings. It’s both an outreach – a remarkable medieval work of art that can finally be displayed in the UK for the first time – and a warning – the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates an arrow in King Harold’s eye.
Diplomats in Brussels, where Brexit negotiations take place, say France is frequently the country that takes the hardest approach when the 27 remaining EU countries thrash out their united position on Brexit issues or decide where there is room for compromise.
That often comes to the bafflement or irritation of counterparts around the table, with the German officials sometimes talking them down, three people familiar with discussions said.
The French ruler wants to be perceived as tough by his other European partners, because as he stated several times during his presidential campaign, giving Britain "the better of the two worlds would simply send the wrong message to the rest of Europe” according to Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund.
“The lending of the Tapisserie de Bayeux precisely fits this intent: to show the very close friendship between the two countries and its historical depth at a time of key diplomatic maneuvers,” de Hoop Scheffer said.
Francois Heisbourg, a political scientist at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, went further: “I prefer to say that the French are blunt rather than hardliners. They have no time to spend on the UK’s hesitations.”
For France, being the bad cop is a part it’s more than happy to play, according to a senior European official, with knowledge of France’s diplomatic vision.
The shared history, with frequent outbreaks of war, has taught the French to be pragmatic and rational when it comes to dealing with its neighbor across the English Channel, the official said.
Former President Charles de Gaulle twice blocked Britain’s accession to the EU in the 1960s and the French never thought of the UK’s membership as a natural alliance, which means France can take a stance without feeling emotional about Brexit, the diplomat said.
This contrasts with the stance taken by the German government, which has more of an attachment to the UK’s place in Europe because of its World War II role, and is sad it’s beating a retreat.
France’s hard-line position was on display most recently last week in discussions over the UK’s possible post-Brexit transition arrangement, and also in its approach to access to Europe’s financial services market.
Ahead of the leaders’ meeting, The Telegraph reported that the UK will agree on Thursday to pay France to continue to police the border at Channel ports as Macron had threatened to abandon a pact that allows UK border guards to patrol on French soil after Brexit.
The Daily Mail – one of Britain’s most popular tabloids – ran a headline calling it “Le Stitch-Up!” -- that is 45 million pounds to borrow the Bayeux Tapestry “but only if the local mayor agrees.”
Thursday’s summit between May and Macron – at the military academy of Sandhurst with its own long history – will aim to go beyond the wrangling over the specifics of Brexit and look to what the two nations have in common.
“A strong relationship between our two countries is in the UK, France and Europe’s interests, both now and into the future,” May said on Wednesday in a statement. In advance of the summit, the chiefs of their five intelligence services met for the first time ever, with the intention of making it a fixture.
Back in Britain, the tapestry announcement was met with enthusiasm given its powerful historical resonance – some speculate it might have been woven by nuns in Kent not France.
It’s an “extraordinary diplomatic outreach by the president of France and a fantastic gesture of goodwill from one of our nearest and closest allies,” British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told BBC radio.
It’s also – as Macron’s gesture reminds – a representation of the last defeat on English soil at the hands of invaders from across the waters.